Biography of Ashoka the Great and his empire

Ashoka the Great (Aśoka) was an Indian emperor of the Maurya Empire, son of Bindusara, who ruled almost the entire Indian subcontinent from c. 268 to 232 BCE. Ashoka promoted the spread of Buddhism across ancient Asia. Maybe Ashoka’s mother’s name was Subhadrangi.

Chandragupta Maurya was succeeded by his son Bindusara. When Bindusars died after a reign of about 25 years. Emperor Ashoka was known as Devanampriya Priyadarshi.

Ashoka’s accession and inauguration to the throne

Grandson of Chandragupta Maurya Ashoka’s inauguration to the throne took place after 4 years of his accession to the throne of the great Maurya Empire. Many historians believe that this delay was due to his feud with his brothers over the throne.

According to the Sinhalese Deepavansa (Dīpavaṃsa; “Chronicle of the Island”), Ashoka ascended the throne after 214 years Gautama Buddha’s renunciation and was inaugurated 4 years after his accession. The date of Gautama Buddha’s renunciation is generally considered to be 487 BC. So Ashoka (487-214) ascended the throne in 273 BC and was inaugurated in 269 BC.

Ashoka— Devanampriya Priyadarshi

Ascending the throne, Ashoka took the title “Devanampriya” following his predecessors. Ashoka used to introduce himself as Devanampriya Priyadarshi. The name Ashoka is found in literature and only in two inscriptions.

Ashoka grew up in a royal palace environment and naturally loved princely amusements, mrigaya, war etc. During his father’s reign, Ashoka served as the ruler of Ujjain in his early life. Later, when a rebellion broke out in Taxila, Bindusara sent him there. After suppressing the rebellion, he took over the governance of Taxila. He ascended the throne of Pataliputra in 273 BC after his father’s death.

Ashoka with his queens
Ashoka with his queens

Wives of Ashoka were Nirmal Dulal, Karuvaki, Maharani Devi, Asandhimitra, Padmavati, and Tishyaraksha.

Ashoka’s Kalinga conquest

For the first 13 years of his reign, Ashoka followed the traditional policies of his predecessor, the Mauryas, to expand their empire in India and befriend foreign powers outside India. Ashoka invaded and conquered Kalinga in the thirteenth year of his reign. This was the most significant chapter in his life. The state of Kalinga was made up of parts of Orissa and Ganjam districts. Ashoka’s inscriptions do not mention the reason for his attack on Kalinga.

After the Kalinga conquest it became a province of the Maurya Empire. In this war 11/12 lakh people were captured, 1 lakh people were killed and a large number of people were injured. Not only Kalinga soldiers were killed in this war but civilians of Kalinga were also injured and killed. The capital of the new province i.e. Kalinga was Tosali and a prince was given its rulership.

Ashoka issued two ordinances to the Mahamatras announcing the administrative principles of the new province. In both these decrees the emperor declared that “all men are my children”.

Why did Ashoka attack Kalinga?

Different scholars have tried to explain the reasons for this attack in different ways. There are some core reasons why Ashoka attacked Kalinga. The reasons are mentioned below—

Reason of policy of expanding the empire

Although Kalinga belonged to the Nanda Empire, it became independent after the fall of the Nandas. Kalinga was an independent state during the reign of Chandragupta Maurya and Chandragupta did not have control over the state. So following the policy of imperial expansion Ashoka attacked and conquered Kalinga. Tibetan accounts suggest that Kalinga was an obstacle to access to South India by sea or land. So it became necessary for Ashoka to conquer Kalinga. Moreover, Kalinga was a powerful kingdom then.

To increase the power of Maurya Empire

During Chandragupta’s reign, 60,000 infantry of Kalinga, There were 12,000 cavalry and 700 war elephants. This military power was definitely increased during Ashoka’s reign. It became imperative for Ashoka to destroy such a powerful neighboring state.

During the reign of Bindusara, Kalinga formed an alliance with the Chola and Pandya kings of the south to oppose him. Magaadha was surrounded by the Kalingas in the north and the Cholas and Pandyas in the south; Ashoka realised that if he could win Kalinga his power will be incresed by multiples that is why he attacked Kalinga. Moreover, commercial interest also motivated Ashoka to conquer Kalinga.

The trade of Magadha then proceeded through the port of Tamralipta to Brahmadesh, Sumatra and Java on the way to the Bay of Bengal. Kalinga was the rival of Magadha in this maritime trade. So Ashoka was keen to annex Kalinga to the Mauryan empire. During the reign of Bindusara, Kalinga formed an alliance with the Chola and Pandya kings of the south and opposed him. Ashoka saw the Magadha under arms, surrounded by the Kalingas in the north and the Cholas and Pandyas in the south. That is why he attacked Kalinga. 

Commercial reason

Commercial interest also motivated Ashoka to conquer Kalinga. The trade of Magadha then proceeded through the port of Tamralipta to Brahmadesh, Sumatra and Java on the way to the Bay of Bengal. Kalinga was the rival of Magadha in this maritime trade. So Ashoka became enthusiastic to include Kalinga under the Mauryan Empire. So Ashoka was keen to annex Kalinga to the Mauryan Empire.

Spritual conquest began after the Kalinga conquest, Ashoka converted to Buddhism

The Kalinga conquest was a landmark event in the history of Magadha and India. The conquest of Maurya Empire marked the end of the conquest and expansion  by the Kalinga conquest. It ushered in a new era—an era of peace, social progress, evangelism, and at the same time of political stagnation and perhaps military ineffectiveness as Magadha’s military brilliance faded away for lack of practice. The era of military conquest ended, the era of Dhammavijay or spiritual conquest began.

Ashoka too ook initiation from Upagupta

The Kalinga War also had a profound impact on Ashoka’s mind and governance. Seeing the horrors of the Kalinga war, Emperor Ashoka converted to Buddhism. According to Buddhist texts, he took initiation from a Buddhist monk named Upagupta. Ashoka’s change of mind was not limited to his change of religion – it also affected the domestic and foreign policies of the Mauryan Empire.

Ashoka assured his border states that he would not wage war in future. The best victory is the victory of religion, i.e. winning the love of others through amity, humanity and brotherhood. Instead of considering the military victory as the real victory, he wholeheartedly accepted the religious victory as the real victory.

He established hospitals for people and animals. He planted trees along the road and dug wells for the convenience of passers-by. He also had a keen eye to ensure that the royal servants did not neglect their duties. He appointed a class of servants called Dharmamahamatras whose duty was to promote the spiritual and temporal well-being of the subjects. He tried to promote brotherhood and tolerance among different communities. Though a Buddhist himself, he honored the Brahmins, Sramanas, Jains and Ajivik communities with various donations.

Read— The Significance of Ashoka Chakra in Indian Culture

Giving up traditional conquest policy, Ashoka won friendship of the other kingdoms

Emperor Asoka abandoned the traditional conquest policy of the Maurya emperors. He also declared that none of his sons, great-grandsons would fight again in the future. He sent people to propagate his religion within India and abroad. He was able to win the friendship of the Tamil kingdoms of Kerala, Chola, Pandya, Satyaputra, Keralaputra, etc. in India by his policy of alliance. Outside India he also won the love and respect of the kings of Syria, Egypt, Macedonia, Epirus, Sinhala etc. 

Ashoka introduced policy of equality

Ashoka preached a new ideal of royal duty. He declares that all men are His children. His sole aim was to ensure their worldly and heavenly happiness.

For the worldly welfare of the subjects, he made some reforms in governance. He used to send employees like ‘Rajuk’, ‘Sut’ etc. on state tour after three and five years to see the state of peace, order, justice etc. in the country. Ashoka considered everyone equal in the eyes of the law. He introduced the principles of ‘Equality of Use’ and ‘Equality of Punishment’, providing equal punishment for the same crime for all. 

Boundaries of Ashoka’s Maurya Empire— how big it was

This is the standard "textbook" map of the Maurya Empire during Ashoka.
This is the standard “textbook” map of the Maurya Empire during Ashoka’s rule.

During the period of Chandragupta Maurya, the Maurya empire spread over a large area of ​​India. When Ashoka conquered Kalinga, it expanded further. Information about the boundaries of Ashoka’s empire can be gained from the accounts of local and foreign writers and the location of Ashoka’s inscriptions. Inscriptions of Ashoka have been found at Dholi in Kalinga and at Jaugad village in Andhra. The Lumbini and Nigliv inscriptions in the northeast (present Nepal) suggest that the Terai region of Nepal was the northeastern limit of Ashoka’s kingdom. Ashoka’s inscriptions found in the village of Kalsi in Dehradun district indicate the limits of his kingdom in the Himalayan region. Inscriptions found in the village of Mansehra in the Hazara district of Pakistan and in the village of Shahbaz Garhi in the Peshawar district give an idea of ​​the northwestern border of his kingdom.

Ashok Sthamba in Lumbini | Image by Nirmal Dulal
Ashok Sthamba in Lumbini | Image by Nirmal Dulal

From Greek sources it is known that, The northwestern frontier of the Maurya Empire extended up to the Hindu Kush Mountains. Ashoka’s inscriptions have been found at Jalalabad in Afghanistan and Taxila in Gandhara (present north-west Pakistan). From this comes the support of Chandragupta Maurya who obtained Kabul, Kandahar, Herat and Balochistan from the Seleucids. The fact that Kashmir belonged to Ashoka’s empire is known from Hiuen Tsang’s account and the Rajtarangini of Kalhana.

Ashoka’s inscriptions found at Junagadh bear witness to Maurya supremacy in Kathiawar. Ashoka’s inscriptions found at Sopara in Maharashtra indicate that his empire extended as far as the Arabian Sea. 

The fact that this area belonged to the Mauryan empire is also known from the Junagadh inscription of the later Saka Mahakshatrapa Rudradamana.

Ashoka’s inscriptions have been found in the south at Eraguri in Andhra Pradesh and Chitaldrug district in Mysore. From this it can be said that Ashoka’s empire extended to those two areas in the south. Inscriptions written in Brahmi script have been found at Mahasthangarh in Bangladesh. Hiuen Tsang mentions stupas built by Ashoka at the copper-plated ports and at Karnasuvarna. From this it can be considered that Bengal (present Bangladesh and West Bengal of India) was naturally included in the Maurya Empire. However, it can be considered that Kamrupa was not part of the Maurya Empire. 

On the basis of inscriptions, architectural monuments and descriptions of various writers and travelers, it can be said that Ashoka ruled over the whole of India except Kamrup in the east and a few Tamil states in the south. Apart from India, some parts of Afghanistan belonged to his empire. 

What was Ashoka’s religion? Was Ashoka really a follower of Buddhism?

Ashoka was a worshipper of Shiva in his early life

As it is believed, emperor Ashoka was a Buddhist in his personal life but it is known from Rajatarangini of Kalhana that Ashoka was a worshiper of Shiva in his early life. But the horrors of the Kalinga war changed his mind and he was initiated into Buddhism by a Buddhist monk named Upagupta. There is much evidence that Ashoka embraced Buddhism. This is supported by his inscriptions and other sources. 

Ashoka was a Buddhist

In the first minor epitaph he describes the various stages of his attachment to Buddhism. He declared himself a Buddhist in the Maski and Rupnath scripts. The first minor epitaph mentions that he has been a worshiper for more than two years. But for one year he did not show much enthusiasm for religion.

Since joining the Sangha, he has been practicing religion with considerable zeal for about a year and a half. There is no doubt that this Sangha is a Buddhist Sangha.

In the Varaka script he is seen speaking in a tone of authority over the Buddhist Sangha. There he instructed Buddhist monks and lay worshipers to recite specific portions of the scriptures. In this script he declared Ashoka’s belief in the Buddhist trinity. 

In the minor inscriptions of Sarnath, Kaushambi and Sanchi, he appears in the role of religious protector. In all these letters he ordered the expulsion of the Mahamatras from the Sangha of divisive bhikshus. 

The eighth inscription reveals that he turned the Vihara Yatra into a pilgrimage. First he visited Buddha Gaya. Later he traveled to places of pilgrimage related to the birth and life of the Buddha.

According to the Rumindi inscriptions, he came here in the twentieth year of Abhishek to pray and built a stone wall and pillar here as it was the birthplace of Gautama Buddha. It is also known from this inscription that because it was the birthplace of Gautama Buddha, he exempted the inhabitants of Lumbini village from all religious taxes and reduced the land revenue to one-eighth. 

To maintain the unity of the Buddhist Sangha, Ashoka convened Buddhist conferences or Sangeets. This conference was held at Pataliputra in the seventeenth year of his reign. The purpose of this conference was to resolve differences among Buddhists and compile the teachings of Gautama Buddha. Mowgliputta presided over the conference. The decisions of this conference were engraved on the Sarnath Stele. 

In some inscriptions of Ashoka, the portrait of an elephant or the word Gajottam can be found engraved. According to Buddhist legend, Gautama Buddha was in his mother’s womb in the form of an elephant before his birth. From this it appears that Ashoka dedicated his writings to Buddha.

From the above discussion it can be said that Ashoka was a Buddhist in his personal life.

Ashoka was not a Buddist! Did he follow the Rajdharma?

Although Ashoka himself was a Buddhist, there is debate among scholars about the nature of the religion he preached. Although many scholars believe that Ashoka’s religion was Buddhism there are also some people who do not consider his religion as Buddhism.

Fleet does not recognize Ashoka’s religion as Buddhism. According to him, it was ‘Rajdharma’—that is, the code of conduct followed by kings. But it doesn’t seem right. It was not a code of conduct to be followed by kings or princes – it was a set of rules preached to the general public for righteous living. The principles of his religion were present in almost all Indian religions.

Dr. Radhakumud Mukhopadhyay states that the religion preached by Ashoka was not Buddhism because it did not mention the main teachings of Buddhism; It lacks four Arya-satya, Karma-Karana relationship, Ashtangika Marga, and Nirvana Tattva. 

Ashoka’s religion— only contains moral theories

Ashoka’s religion not only contains moral theories but also describes the methods of practicing them. Ashoka’s religion did not have Nirvana as the goal of Buddhism. The twelfth inscription suggests that Ashoka’s religion was not a specific religion. These were some moral precepts – which can be called the essence or essence of all religions. Ashoka’s religion is not really a specific religion, it is a code of conduct for living a simple, simple and righteous life. 

Ashoka described himself as the beloved of the gods. But there is no place of gods or heaven in Buddhism. 

Ashoka’s religion was aimed at eliminating class conflict in society. During this period, agriculture and trade expanded greatly, resulting in the rise of the householder, nobility and merchant classes. Conventional social order could not prevent this change. So to avoid class-conflict, Ashoka tried to preserve the unity of the state through his preaching. The Mauryan regime was highly centralized. Ashoka preached his religion to avoid any resistance to this centralization of his vast empire. His preached religion was practical and convenient. It was a policy acceptable to all his subjects irrespective of caste, creed, caste and by this he tried to establish unity among his subjects.

Universal religion

Ashoka’s religion was universal. The religion he preached was more liberal and humane than formal Buddhism. So it was acceptable to all irrespective of caste, creed, caste. Ashoka’s religion had several similarities with many later religions or Buddhism. However, scholars believe that the religion preached by Ashoka was not Buddhism due to differences with the principles of Buddhism. 

Ashoka took various measures to spread the teachings of his religion. He inscribed the message of his religion on pillars and stones throughout the empire. The main points of his preached religion were respect for elders, kindness to living beings, truthfulness etc.

Ashoka employed a special class of royal officials called ‘Dharma Mahamatras’ for his preaching. Promoting harmony among different communities, administering royal grants and charitable works and propagating the teachings of Ashoka’s religion were the duties of Dharma Mahamatras. 

Ashoka himself traveled to different places for the purpose of propagating his religion. His religion spread easily among the subjects as a result of his personal preaching. 

Philanthropist Ashoka

Emperor Ashoka did a lot of philanthropic work. He built roads, planted shade trees along the roads and established Dharamshalas. In the 7th pillar he says that he appointed the dharmamatra and set up the dharma stambha. Perhaps he meant all these philanthropic works by Dharmastambha. 

Ashoka’s missionary work was not limited to India. Outside India his preachers spread the message of his religion in different countries. In the Thirteenth Inscription Ashoka states that the message of his religion spread to the five Greek-ruled kingdoms of Syria, Egypt, Cyrene, Macedon and Epirus. He sent his daughter Sanghamitra and son (rather brother) Mahendra to Sinhalese for the purpose of preaching the religion. Sinhalese history tells us that Ashoka also sent missionaries to Brahmadesh and Sumatra.

Death of Ashoka

Ashoka died in 232 BC after a reign of about 40 years. According to Tibetan legend, Emperor Ashoka died in Taxila. Maurya, who was his grandson.

It should be noted at the end of the article that many scholars have expressed doubts about the authenticity of this story.

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